Sen. Hirono is asking William Barr — and every other nominee — about sexual misconduct

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on September 24, 2018.

She’s setting a precedent that allegations of sexual harassment and assault matter.

During attorney general nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Barr whether he had ever committed sexual misconduct.

“Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature?” she asked.

“No,” said Barr.

“Have you ever faced discipline or entered into a settlement related to this kind of conduct?”

Again, Barr said he had not.

The exchange lasted less than a minute. But the questions have big implications.

While senators usually ask nominees specific questions about their record or background, Hirono has been asking the same two questions of nominees since January 2018, inspired by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. The questions turned out to be significant during then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings last fall: Kavanaugh answered no to both questions but was later accused of exposing himself to Deborah Ramirez when both were university students.

By asking all nominees of all genders, under oath, about sexual misconduct, Hirono is establishing a public record of their responses — anyone who lies to her is committing a federal crime. She’s also setting the precedent that allegations of sexual misconduct matter, and that the American people have a right to know whether the people appointed to some of the country’s highest offices have been accused of harassment or assault.

“Women have been putting up with this behavior since time immemorial,” she told Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick last year. “What I am trying to do is keep attention paid to this issue right now.”

Hirono has been asking every nominee about sexual misconduct for more than a year

In January 2018, Hirono announced that she would begin asking all judicial nominees who came before the Senate Judiciary Committee about their histories with sexual misconduct.

“As you know, women and men all across the country have been speaking up about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and it started in Hollywood, but we know that it occurs in many other settings,” Hirono said during the confirmation hearing for Kurt Engelhardt, nominated to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. “As part of my responsibility as a member of this committee and to ensure the fitness of nominees for lifetime appointments to the federal bench, I would like to ask you two questions,” she said to Engelhardt.

Then she asked the same questions she asked Barr on Tuesday. Like Barr, Engelhardt answered no to both. He was confirmed.

Though her initial announcement pertained to judicial nominees, a spokesperson for Hirono told Vox that the senator has asked the same two questions of all nominees who have appeared before her for more than a year. As of August, HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery calculated that she had asked the questions nearly 100 times.

The questions got more attention last fall, when Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct. Before the accusations became public, he had answered no to Hirono’s two questions.

The first allegation to become public, made by Christine Blasey Ford, concerned an assault she says occurred when she and Kavanaugh were in high school, and he might not have been a legal adult. Soon after, however, Deborah Ramirez told the New Yorker that Kavanaugh had thrust his naked penis in her face without her consent when the two were undergraduates at Yale University — and he would have been 18.

That allegation raised questions about whether Kavanaugh had perjured himself in his answers to Hirono.

“This is another serious, credible, and disturbing allegation against Brett Kavanaugh,” the senator said of Ramirez’s accusation at the time. “It should be fully investigated.”

After a limited FBI investigation, Kavanaugh was confirmed and now sits on the Supreme Court.

But Hirono’s questions have import beyond any one nominee. As Lithwick wrote last year, “She is laying down a moral marker, putting the nominees, and her colleagues, and the country on notice that the only way to change the culture of harassment, including on the federal bench, is by asking the questions, getting on-the-record answers, and making it clear that this will not be swept back under the carpet.”

“I know that as we go along, we will have more effective ways to prevent and even, if need be, to punish this behavior,” Hirono told Lithwick. “But we are all part of the culture. So if we say it, we become aware, and we can become more aware as we develop processes and ways to fight back.”


Cory Booker presses William Barr on racism and criminal justice

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in December.

Barr has previously said that white and black offenders are treated the same by the criminal justice system.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a likely Democratic contender for the 2020 presidential nomination, pushed back on attorney general nominee William Barr’s statements about race and the criminal justice system at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Barr has argued in the past that “there’s no statistical evidence of racism in the criminal justice system,” according to comments cited by Booker. The senator pressed Barr on the point, detailing evidence of exactly such a bias.

Barr responded by noting that there’s “no doubt” there’s “racism in the system,” while adding that he found that it’s “working” overall.

As Vox’s German Lopez writes, Barr was an architect of many policies that have since led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. The exchange revealed that the attorney general nominee sees racism as a peripheral issue within the criminal justice system rather than Booker’s view of it as a problem that’s entrenched in the system itself.

Booker highlighted that Barr has pushed for hardline criminal justice policies in the past, including signing off on a report making the “Case for More Incarceration,” although he now claims to back reforms that would slightly reduce incarceration rates.

Barr has questioned racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the past. Booker called him out.

As Booker notes, Barr has previously suggested that black and white Americans charged with the same offense are treated the same way by the criminal justice system, a claim countless studies have simply shown to be untrue. Black offenders are more likely to receive longer sentences, more likely to receive higher bail, and more likely to have their probation revoked, according to a range of different analyses.

Booker repeatedly pointed out this discrepancy, and ultimately pressed Barr to commit to a study on these disparities, noting that he’s personally experienced biased treatment by the justice system, even as Barr touted the gains he made in the 1990s. “I was a young black guy in 1990s,” said Booker. “I was a 20-something-year-old and experienced a dramatically different justice system in the treatment I received.”

At the end of their back-and-forth, Barr maintained that higher incarceration rates led to a reduction in crime that’s benefitted black Americans, but said that heavy drug penalties have “harmed the black community.”

Read their exchange, below:

Booker: You stated that if ‘a black and a white’ — this is quoting you directly — ‘are charged with the same offense, generally they’ll get the same treatment in the system and ultimately the same penalty.’ And I quote you again, ‘There’s no statistical evidence of racism in the criminal justice system.’ Do you still believe that?

Barr: I think that’s taken out of a broader quote, which is the whole criminal justice system involves both federal but also state and local justice systems. I said there’s no doubt there are places where there’s racism still in the system. But I said overall, I thought, that as a system, it’s working.

Booker: So can I press you on that? Overall the system treats blacks and whites fairly. From my own experience — I’ve lived in affluent communities. There are certain drug laws applied there than the inner city community in which I live.

But let’s not talk stats or personal experiences. ... I have a whole bunch of reports which I’ll enter into the record from nonpartisan, bipartisan groups, even conservative leaders talking about the rife nature of racial bias within the system.

For example, the federal government’s own data, the US Sentencing Commission’s research shows that federal prosecutors are more likely to charge blacks with offenses that carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences than similarly situated for whites.

The federal government’s own data shows that black defendants were subject to three-strike sentencing enhancements at a statistically significant higher rate, which added an average [of] over 10 years to their sentences. ... For example, I don’t know if you’re aware or not of the Brookings study that found blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs despite the fact that whites are actually more likely to sell drugs in the United States of America.

And blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession of drugs when there is no difference racially in America for the usage and possession of drugs in the United States. Are you familiar with the Brookings study?

Barr: No, I’m not.

Booker: Okay. So just to follow up, will you commit to commissioning a study examining racial disparities and disparate impacts of the policies that you talked about and led to mass incarceration, the policies you defended when you criticized the bipartisan 2015 sentencing reform legislation. Will you commit to at least, as the most important law enforcement officer in the land, to studying those well-documented racial disparities and the impacts?

Barr: Of course I’ll commit to studying that. I’ll have the Bureau of Justice Statistics pull together everything they have. If there’s something lacking, I’ll get that. I’m interested in the state experience. But when I looked at that — I think 1992 was a different time, senator. The crime rate had quintupled over the proceeding 30 years and peaked in 1992. And it’s been coming down since 1990.

Booker: And sir, I just want to tell you, I was a young black guy in 1990s. I was a 20-something-year-old and experienced a dramatically different justice system in the treatment I received.

The data of racial disparities and what it’s done — because you literally said this about black communities. I know your heart was in the right place. You said, hey, I want to help black communities. The benefits of incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans living in inner cities. You also said a failure to incarcerate hurts black Americans most. I just want to ask you a yes or no question because I have seconds left.

Do you believe now 30, 40 years of mass incarceration targeted disproportionately towards African-Americans, harsher sentences, disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? ... Do you think, just yes or no that, this system of mass incarceration has disproportionately benefitted African-American communities?

Barr: I think the reduction in crime has since 1992, but I think that the heavy drug penalties, especially on crack and other things, have harmed the black community, the incarceration rates.


House Democrats are frustrated the shutdown is drowning out the rest of their agenda

Female House Democratic members of the 116th Congress prepare for a photo opportunity outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 4, 2019.

A government shutdown was a really weird way for the new majority to start.

This wasn’t the beginning House Democrats imagined when they won their new majority in November.

Rather than an elegant rollout to their anti-corruption, pro-health care, aggressive-on-climate change agenda, House Democrats have been locked from Day 1 in a fierce partisan fight with President Donald Trump over how to reopen a partially shuttered government. It has been a wake-up call to the ways of Washington particularly for the new members, who are getting a dramatic introduction to government dysfunction.

“I’m frustrated. I came into Congress ready to get stuff done,” Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT), a newly elected member who represents one of the most conservative districts held by a Democrat, told me. “But here we are, two weeks in, and we haven’t been able to turn on the lights. ... Some of the important debates aren’t happening right now because of the shutdown.”

In private conversations with Democratic aides and lawmakers, they sometimes wonder if people surrounding President Donald Trump are perfectly happy to steal Democrats’ thunder while thousands of federal workers go without pay and the economy takes a hit.

Whatever the White House’s intentions, the frustration among Democrats is palpable. This wasn’t what they hoped for or planned for their new majority, and they have a lot of other business they want to get to. Not that they’ll simply capitulate to Trump so they can move on to other issues. But it’s still been a frustrating opening for the new Congress.

Trump craves attention more than anything else. Even if he’s taking the blame for the government shutdown in the public’s eyes, he still might prefer that to letting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and company roll out their plans to expand health care, attack climate change, and investigate his administration’s misdeeds.

Democrats haven’t had time to do much except passing spending bills

For the 60 new members of the Democratic House majority, fighting with the White House just to turn the lights on, as McAdams put it, was not what they came to Washington to do.

So far, most of the House’s floor time so far has been spent debating and passing government spending bills, all of which the Senate refuses to take up because Republican leaders don’t want to cross Trump.

The House has taken 30 roll call votes in 2019. By my count, roughly two-thirds of them have been related in one way or another to the government shutdown. Most of the others have been formalities, like approving the new House rules.

The new majority started by passing an appropriations bill that would have opened the entire government back up. They have since passed bills to fund specific agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, and the USDA. They have approved a bill, also passed by the Senate, to guarantee back pay for federal workers who are missing their paychecks during the shutdown.

Democratic leaders didn’t have much of a choice, of course. They wanted to show they would govern responsibly, in contrast to the outgoing Republican majority that let Trump shut down the government with a last-minute double-cross. The public, hearing more and more stories about federal workers forced to skip medications or find part-time work, probably wouldn’t take too kindly to Democrats sidelining the shutdown talks to pursue their other interests. The current crisis demands their attention.

It’s still undeniably a weird way to start the new Congress.

Democrats are hungry to start enacting their agenda — once the government reopens

Some of this is simply the normal pains of transitioning into the majority. New members have to get their offices set up, figure out how the phones work, and hire up new staff. Committee assignments are still being handed out; some people have to move into new offices.

But the new majority hasn’t been twiddling their thumbs. A proactive agenda is starting to take shape.

Democrats have unveiled their big anti-corruption legislation package already. A slew of bills has been introduced to bring down prescription drug prices. Committees have announced hearings to probe the Trump administration’s policies on climate change and immigration. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, is coming to Capitol Hill to testify about his work on behalf of the president. House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) has said that he wants to put a new budget resolution on the floor in April.

The shutdown is still an unwelcome distraction and a potential delay on getting to the hard work of moving legislation through committees and onto the House floor. Governing is about priorities and right now there is no bigger priority than opening the government.

It is difficult to imagine House Democrats undertaking a major legislative push — like stabilizing the Affordable Care Act, a top campaign promise of many Democrats in 2018 — until federal workers are receiving their paychecks again.

It’s not as if the House would have passed Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal if not for the shutdown. Clearly leaders are taking a very deliberative approach to the coming year, setting up hearings on some of the big-ticket items that progressives want to address while at the same time pursuing more targeted legislation on issues where there is a broad consensus within the party.

That behind-the-scenes work is still continuing. But they will have to reopen the government before they can truly take on the role of a full-throated new Democratic majority.


Trump tried to bypass Nancy Pelosi and negotiate with members of her caucus. None of them showed up.

President Donald Trump answers questions from the press as he departs the White House January 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.

Trump doesn’t understand how to negotiate with House Democrats.

President Donald Trump tried a new strategy to get his border wall by going around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Politico reported. He failed spectacularly.

On Tuesday, Trump invited moderate House Democrats to join him at the White House for lunch to talk about his wall and the shutdown. He used a similar strategy when Paul Ryan controlled the House, going around the speaker to negotiate with the far-right Freedom Caucus. But unlike Republicans, no Democrats attended the lunch meeting, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

The embarrassing episode shows two things: Democrats are united on shutdown politics and the president is underestimating Pelosi’s hold on her caucus.

“Is anybody surprised that the president is trying to get votes wherever he can get votes?” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) asked reporters this morning, laughing as he said it. “We are totally united, totally.”

Trump is trying to negotiate with someone other than Pelosi. That’s not how the Democratic caucus operates.

The flurry of White House invitations sent out on Tuesday afternoon and evening confused the House Democrats who received them. There seemed to be no real strategy on the part of the White House as to who was being invited, other than to try to make it seem like they were winning over moderate Democrats.

The White House invited five Democrats, according to a list Sanders sent out: Reps. Lou Correa (CA), Stephanie Murphy (FL), David Scott (SC), Charlie Crist (FL), and Abigail Spanberger (VA). Murphy and Correa are two co-chairs of the House Blue Dog Coalition, a faction of fiscally conservative Democrats. Spanberger is a first-term from a Red to Blue district who is also a member of the Blue Dogs.

Conspicuously absent from the list were Pelosi and Hoyer; as of Tuesday afternoon, House Democratic leadership had not yet received invitations from the White House for further negotiations on the shutdown.

This left some to wonder if Trump was trying to get moderate House Democrats in his corner as some Senate Republicans are showing signs of breaking ranks and calling for the government to be reopened.

“I think they’re trying to pick off certain people and see if they can get them,” a Democratic aide close to the talks told Vox. “I don’t understand what he’s trying to get out of this, other than a silly photo op. Nothing can happen without leadership. They need to agree on this.”

Murphy and Correa publicly declined the White House invitation. Murphy said she had a scheduling conflict, and both she and Correa urged Trump to reopen the government in statements.

“I continue to believe the Senate should pass and the President should sign the bills reopening government that the House already passed,” Murphy said in her statement.

Similarly, Correa’s spokesperson told Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur that the Congress member “welcomes the opportunity to talk with the president about border security, as soon as the government is reopened.”

The strategy of inviting moderate Democrats to meet with Trump seems to be to pressure these members to agree with him. Because these members represent more conservative districts, the White House seemed to think they might be more compelled by the will of the Republican base.

But even rank-and-file Democrats who have had disagreements with Pelosi in the past know Democratic leadership has to negotiate with the president. If members went to the White House, they would likely talk to Trump about how the shutdown is impacting their district, not make deals on behalf of the party.

“It’s a huge miscalculation that leadership is going to be intimidated by vulnerable Democrats being summoned to the White House with less than 24 hours’ notice,” the aide said.

Trump is used to dealing with Republicans. He has to deal with a whole new environment.

When House Republicans were in charge, Trump used the tactic of bypassing Speaker Ryan, sometimes with great success. The president knew he had allies in conservative House Republicans, like House Freedom Caucus leaders Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH).

Especially during Ryan’s final days, Meadows and Jordan appeared to have more influence over the president than the Republican speaker did. They upended Ryan’s plan to pass a clean government spending bill right before the holidays that contained no money for Trump’s border wall.

As Trump grew increasingly concerned about talking heads on Fox News saying he was caving on his signature issue, Meadows and Jordan went straight to the president to urge him to go against House Republican leadership. The conservative members of the caucus had Trump’s back and would vote for a new funding bill with border wall money, they told him. Trump listened, and told Ryan he needed to add $5 billion worth of wall money to a funding bill — a chain of events that kicked off the current partial government shutdown.

So in some ways, it’s not surprising that Trump and White House officials believe they can replicate this style of forceful negotiation with Democrats. But in doing so, they’re demonstrating how little they know about how the other party operates.


Attorney general nominee William Barr doesn’t reject the possibility of jailing journalists

William Barr testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 15, 2019.

When Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked about it, he didn’t shut down the option outright.

Attorney general nominee William Barrmuch like his predecessor Jeff Sessions — declined to offer a definitive response about whether or not he would jail journalists when pressed on the issue during his Tuesday confirmation hearing.

“If you’re confirmed, will the Justice Department jail reporters for doing their jobs?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked Barr, who has faced heavy scrutiny for his stance on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

Barr did not reject the possibility of jailing journalists outright. Instead, he said that it would likely be a “last resort,” but noted that there were situations where he could envision it happening.

“Uhh,” he said, after a pause, “I know there are guidelines in place, and I can conceive of situations where, as a last resort, and where a news organization has run through a red flag or something like that, knows that they’re putting out stuff that will hurt the country, there could be a situation where someone would be held in contempt.”

The question was a provocative one from a likely contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020. It also tapped into a long-running debate about using the 1917 Espionage Act to target journalists and others, including Edward Snowden, an issue that has flared up in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

It’s an issue that has become more pronounced under Trump, when Sessions, his first attorney general, signaled that DOJ could step up efforts to track down government employees leaking to the media. Barr’s response heavily echoes the one that Sessions provided during a Senate Judiciary hearing in October 2017, when Klobuchar asked the same question. At the time, Sessions said he couldn’t offer a “blanket commitment” to not jail journalists, citing possible national security concerns.

Klobuchar emphasized Tuesday that she was interested in getting Barr’s take because Sessions had previously considered changes to the DOJ’s rules for journalists. In the summer of 2017, Sessions said he was interested in tweaking the rules around DOJ subpoenas of journalists. As a report in the Hill recently indicated, some of these changes still appear to be under consideration and would “lower the threshold that prosecutors must meet before requesting subpoenas for journalists’ records.”

The Obama administration was known for taking a particularly aggressive approach to prosecuting government employees who leaked to journalists. Under Obama, the DOJ charged eight people who provided information to journalists about national security programs, ultimately jailing several of them.

Given Trump’s pervasive attacks on the press — outlets he’s characterized as the “enemy of the people” — there have been concerns that his administration will only continue to follow suit. Barr’s oblique response on Tuesday did little to ease them.


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Barr backs Trump on the border wall and government shutdown

Sen. Amy Klobuchar listens to testimony during William Barr’s confirmation hearing to become US attorney general in January 2019.

The remarks came in an exchange with Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, is on board with the president’s position on the border wall and the government shutdown — and his mischaracterization of Democrats’ position on border security too.

In an exchange with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Barr backed the president’s wall-money-or-nothing approach to funding the government that has resulted in what is now the longest partial government shutdown in US history. Klobuchar asked Barr if he had a message to Justice Department employees who have been furloughed or are working without pay because of the shutdown.

“I would like to see a deal reached whereby Congress recognizes that it’s imperative to have border security and that part of that border security as a commonsense matter needs barriers,” Barr said.

Klobuchar pushed back. She pointed out that there were billions of dollars for border security in a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 and that just last year, there was an effort to put together a deal that would have tied protection for DREAMers — undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children — to billions of dollars for border security as well.

Barr responded that he was “generally aware” of the 2013 legislation but again insisted that there’s an urgent need for funding now.

“The point is we need money right now for border security, including barriers and walls and slats and other things,” he said. “Anything that makes sense in different areas of the border.”

As Barr, if confirmed, would be the head of one of the nine agencies affected by the shutdown, his words are not likely heartening to the people who would be working under him. And as attorney general, Barr is expected to act with independence — not out of loyalty to the political whims of the president.

Democrats aren’t against border security. They’re against this ploy from Trump.

As Klobuchar pointed out on Tuesday, it’s not the case that Democrats are for open borders and believe no action is necessary to fix the US immigration system. They’re against the political ploy Trump is currently undertaking in insisting that he get $5.7 billion for a border wall or keep the government shuttered, conceivably indefinitely.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan recently explained, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that Democrats won’t ever vote for a wall, she’s not saying Democrats are against border security altogether, including a physical barrier at the US-Mexico border:

After all, between 2007 and 2015, Customs and Border Protection spent $2.3 billion building and maintaining 654 miles of physical barriers on the southern border, which Democrats supported, and Democrats have voted for funding as recently as 2018. As one top Democratic aide said, they would support physical barriers again, if it “makes sense.”

What Pelosi is saying is that Trump doesn’t get to shut down the government as a way to fulfill a campaign promise — especially one that carries the baggage of his anti-immigration platform. That’s where Trump and Republicans misunderstand Pelosi and Democrats’ position on the government shutdown and border wall fight.

It’s not surprising that Barr would back Trump on the wall and the shutdown: He likely doesn’t want to cross Trump before he even gets the job he’s been nominated for, and, like Trump, he has a history of being a hardliner on immigration.

In another line of questioning on Tuesday from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Barr said that “one of our major problems, as the president says, is that the immigration laws just have to be changed.” He pointed specifically to people seeking asylum, some of whom he claimed are “abusing” the system.

Barr brought up the need for “barriers at the border” in the exchange with Ernst too, in relation to drugs coming into the US.

“All the serious drugs are coming across that border,” he said. “And, again, I feel it is a critical part of border security that we need to have barriers on the border. We need a barrier system on the border to get control over the border.”

Trump’s wall won’t fix the opioid epidemic, contrary to Trump’s — and apparently Barr’s — claims, as Vox’s German Lopez recently explained. Drug trafficking through legal points of entry is how most illegal drugs get into the United States. Either Barr doesn’t know that or he doesn’t want to say.


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6 key takeaways from Bill Barr’s testimony about the Mueller probe so far

Attorney General nominee William Barr.

Trump’s AG nominee offered some reassurances — but dodged on other questions.

The big question heading into attorney general nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing was whether he’d act as an independent head of the Justice Department under a president who has gone to extreme lengths to try to impede special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — despite elements of his record that have raised some concerns.

So as the hearing began Tuesday, Barr tried to offer some assurances and commitments — saying he almost surely wouldn’t fire Mueller, and making clear he believed self-interested presidential interference with an investigation could raise constitutional concerns.

Yet some of Barr’s answers were less committal — most notably on whether he’d follow ethics advice about recusal, and about how much of Mueller’s findings he’d make public.

Barr also explained that he had met with President Trump in mid-2017 about potentially joining Trump’s legal defense team — and that Trump had pressed him for his opinion on Mueller.

The nominee said he called Mueller a straight shooter and recommended dealing with him as such. But by mid-2018, Barr had apparently become concerned by Mueller’s activities, and submitted a lengthy memo criticizing what he believed was Mueller’s legal theory on obstruction of justice.

So altogether, the opening of Barr’s testimony was a mixed bag — containing some encouraging signs but still making it difficult to dismiss concerns about how he’d handle the special counsel probe going forward.

What Barr said

Here are the key pieces of testimony Barr gave that raised concerns about how he’ll handle the investigation:

  • Recusal: Barr would not commit to following the advice of the Justice Department’s ethics office on whether to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller, saying instead that the decision would be his own.
  • Public disclosure: Barr hedged on what he intended to disclose of Mueller’s findings — he said he wanted the public to be informed but would only commit to acting “consistent with regulations and the law.” He also left the door open to Trump using executive privilege to block the release of some material.
  • Talked with Trump: Barr described how in summer 2017, he had conversations about potentially joining Trump’s defense team, including one with the president. Barr claimed this was a “brief meeting” in which Trump kept pushing him for his views on Mueller, and Barr responded that Mueller was a “straight shooter.”

However, the nominee also made some more reassuring commitments to those concerned he’s being installed to help Trump block the Russia probe:

  • He likely won’t fire Mueller: Barr committed in pretty strong terms that he would not fire Mueller unless some “grave” action justified it, and he found that “unimaginable.”
  • Pardons can be criminal: Barr said that if a president pardoned someone in exchange for a promise not to incriminate him, that would be a crime.
  • Trump can’t intervene to protect himself or family: Finally, Barr also said that if a president were to intervene with a Justice Department investigation to protect himself, a family member, or a business associate, that “would be a breach of his obligation under the Constitution to faithfully execute the laws.”

Barr wouldn’t commit to following DOJ’s ethics advice on recusal

First off, Barr said that though he’d “seek the advice of the career ethics personnel” about recusal, he wouldn’t necessarily follow their advice.

“Under the regulations, I make the decision as the head of the agency as to my own recusal,” he said.

Barr’s position on this is highly relevant — he saw how then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from the Russia probe infuriated President Trump, spurring constant complaints that Sessions had failed to protect him. His relationship with the president never recovered.

Finally, Trump fired Sessions in November and installed Matthew Whitaker, who had earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of the Russia investigation, as an acting replacement. Whitaker then rejected an ethics official’s informal advice that he should recuse himself from overseeing Mueller.

Now Barr faces questions about his impartiality, for a few reasons. First, he had discussed joining Trump’s defense team in 2017. Then, in June 2018, he wrote a lengthy memo criticizing what he thought was Mueller’s theory behind the obstruction of justice investigation — and said Mueller shouldn’t be permitted to subpoena President Trump. He distributed that memo not only to the Justice Department but also to lawyers close to the president.

Matthew Miller, who served in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, argued that Barr’s position fell short of what previous attorneys general had agreed to do:

Barr didn’t quite commit to making a “Mueller report” public

Trump’s attorney general pick also hedged somewhat on whether he’d make Mueller’s findings public. Barr said he believes it’s very important “that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work.”

But when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked whether he’d disclose “as much as possible” of a final report from Mueller, Barr would only commit to acting “consistent with regulations and the law.”

There’s a lot of wiggle room here. He wants to inform the public and Congress of the “results” — but he doesn’t say how much detail he would like to provide, or in what format. His phrase about being consistent with the law might also suggest he could conclude he’s legally constrained from making some of this information public.

Barr also left open the possibility that Trump could block the release of some material through executive privilege. “I don’t have a clue as to what would be in the report,” Barr said. “In theory, if there was executive privilege material that to which an executive privilege claim could be made, it might — someone might raise a claim of executive privilege.”

Barr described his conversations about joining Trump’s defense team

Finally, Barr also disclosed his discussions a year and a half ago about possibly joining Trump’s legal defense team.

He said that in June 2017, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, reached out to him to discuss whether he’d be a good fit for the defense team. “He asked me a number of questions like, ‘What have you said about the president publicly? Do you have conflicts?’” Barr said.

After that, Barr agreed to meet with President Trump. He says this was a “very brief meeting” and that Trump was mainly interested in the question, “How well do you know Bob Mueller,” and in what he thought of Mueller’s integrity.

Barr said he responded that “Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.” He also said that he said he wasn’t interested in joining the legal team then, and that after that, he didn’t hear from the president again until the attorney general post opened up.

But Barr also offered some reassurances to those concerned that Trump might shut down Mueller’s probe

Barr also made some commitments, and gave some assurances, regarding the integrity of the Mueller probe and what Trump might do to interfere with it.

For one, he committed rather strongly to not firing Mueller. He said it was “unimaginable” to him that Mueller would do anything that would justify his firing, and he would only take that action if Mueller did something “pretty grave.” He also said he’d make sure Mueller had the funds and time necessary to finish his work.

Then, asked whether the president “could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him,” Barr responded, “No, that would be a crime.” (Many have speculated that Trump might pardon his former campaign chair Paul Manafort, who was convicted of financial crimes last year.)

Barr also made an interesting claim that a president interfering in an investigation in which he has an interest could be a constitutional violation. He said:

The other category of cases, and let’s pick an easy, bad example, would be, if a member of the president’s family, or a business associate, or something, was under investigation, and he tries to intervene. He’s the chief law enforcement officer and you could say “he has the power,” but it would be a breach of his obligation under the Constitution to faithfully execute the laws. So in my opinion, if a president attempts to intervene in a matter he has a stake in to protect himself, that should first be looked at as a breach of his constitutional duties.

Those examples are certainly interesting, considering members of Trump’s family (like his son Donald Trump Jr.) may potentially be implicated in Mueller’s investigation. Trump’s business has come under scrutiny as well.

Finally, Barr was asked about Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s claims that he wanted to “correct” any Mueller report before its release. “That will not happen,” Barr said.


Americans are now more likely to die from opioid overdoses than car crashes


The opioid epidemic is now a bigger public health and safety threat than car crashes.

For the first time in history, Americans are more likely to die from opioid overdoses than car crashes, according to a new report from the National Safety Council.

Based on 2017 data, people in the US have a 1 in 103 chance of dying in a motor vehicle crash over their lifetime, but a 1 in 96 chance of dying of an opioid overdose.

In comparison, a person has a 1 in 6 chance of dying of heart disease, a 1 in 7 chance of dying of cancer, a 1 in 285 chance of dying of a gun assault, a 1 in 1,117 chance of dying by drowning, a 1 in 188,364 chance of dying in a plane crash, and a 1 in 218,106 chance of getting killed by lightning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the age-adjusted motor vehicle death rate hit 11.5 per 100,000 people in 2017, down from a recent peak of 15.2 in 2002.

By contrast, opioid overdose deaths — now largely driven by illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that’s spread in black markets for drugs — hit an age-adjusted rate of 14.9 per 100,000 in 2017, up from 2.9 in 1999.

Preliminary numbers for 2018 indicate that the overdose death rate may have leveled off earlier in the year, although that would still leave drug overdose deaths at record or near-record rates.

The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical marketing and lobbying led doctors to prescribe far more opioid painkillers — leading to the first wave of overdose deaths as more people, including both patients and people who stole, bought, or borrowed painkillers from patients, misused the drugs and got addicted.

A second wave of drug overdoses took off in the 2000s when heroin flooded the illicit market, as drug dealers took advantage of a new population of people who used opioids but either lost access to painkillers or simply sought a better, cheaper high. And now the US is in the middle of a third wave, as fentanyl offers a more potent, cheaper — and deadlier — alternative to heroin.

There are real solutions to the opioid crisis

Public health and drug policy experts say there are solutions to the opioid crisis. First, America could dramatically expand access to addiction treatment — which, based on a 2016 surgeon general report, remains inaccessible to the bulk of people who need it. That should entail dramatically boosting access to medications like methadone and buprenorphine, which are considered the gold standard of treatment for opioid addiction and reduce the mortality rate among opioid addiction patients by half or more.

When France relaxed restrictions on doctors prescribing buprenorphine in response to its own opioid crisis in 1995, the number of people in treatment rose and overdose deaths fell by 79 percent over the following four years.

Beyond treatment, prescribers could also cut back on excess opioid painkiller prescriptions — to prevent more people from misusing the drugs, while still ensuring patients who truly need them get access. Harm reduction approaches, such as needle exchanges and more distribution of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, would also help.

But a consistent problem for such work has been a lack of federal resources. Congress has increased funding for opioid addiction treatment here and there in recent years, but the money allocated so far falls very short of the tens of billions of dollars that experts say is necessary to fully and quickly confront the opioid epidemic. And despite lavish promises, President Donald Trump has done little to change that.

For more on the solutions to the opioid epidemic, read Vox’s explainer.


The controversy around Trump’s fast-food football feast, explained

Trump presenting a buffet of fast food to be served to the Clemson Tigers football team.

People are calling Trump’s McDonald’s and Wendy’s meal for the Clemson Tigers racist and classist.

When President Trump welcomed the Clemson Tigers, national college football champions, to the White House on January 14, he served them burgers, pizza, and fries from some of America’s most storied institutions: fast-food chains.

The resulting buffet, which included hamburgers, fries, salads, and fish sandwiches from McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s alongside Domino’s pizza, was a strange choice, particularly for an event held in the 140-seat State Dining Room, which traditionally hosts formal dinners for ambassadors and heads of state.

But it was also a choice that Trump and the White House blamed on the partial government shutdown, now the longest in US history. Like many other federal institutions, the White House kitchen is not currently operating, which is partly a result of Trump’s refusal to support a bill that doesn’t include funding for a $5 billion wall on the Mexican border.

In an explanation for the evening’s menu, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, “The Democrats’ refusal to compromise on border security and reopen the government didn’t stop President Trump from hosting national champion @ClemsonFB tonight. He personally paid for the event to be catered by some of America’s great fast food joints.”

Though he told reporters that he had personally bought “300 hamburgers,” in a tweet the next morning that number had skyrocketed to “1000 hamberders [sic].” (Photos and videos of the scene show that the lower number is likely the more correct one.)

But though this provides a clear, if a bit insignificant, portrait of the ease at which Trump is capable of lying, others have accused Trump of disrespecting the athletes by serving them cheap fast food. Some have also argued that the right thing to do would have been to bring in his kitchen staff at the Trump International Hotel, which is just three blocks from the White House.

There were, of course, the sorts of viral tweets that one would expect on such an occasion. One poked fun at the juxtaposition of presumably hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of silver and china “holding $29.50 of lukewarm dog shit,” another called it “probably the best metaphor for Trump’s presidency that I can think of.” A third likened the move to something that Talladega Nights’ Ricky Bobby would do, comparing Trump to the wealthy yet unsophisticated protagonist.

At least some of the guests, for their part, seem to have appreciated the dinner choice; Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence told TMZ that “It was awesome.” Trump himself has also long professed to be a fan of fast food, possibly out of a fear of being poisoned, so it’s likely that he enjoyed the meal just fine.

But for some, Trump’s comments, particularly when he speculated to reporters prior to the event that “I would think that’s their favorite food,” referring to chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, rang as classist or racist. It’s not much of a leap to assume that Trump guessed that many Clemson Tigers are black or come from working-class backgrounds, and thus presumed they prefer cheap, fatty foods over anything the White House would typically serve for guests in the State Dining Room.

This is a false assumption — studies show that people actually eat more fast food as their income levels rise, and about one-third of all US adults eat fast food on a given day — but it’s still a widespread one, and one that contributes to further stereotypes about black and poor people’s consumption habits being somehow less virtuous than rich people’s.

Yet as one person on Twitter pointed out, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a different president, perhaps one with less of a history of racism, buying a bunch of fast food for a college football team and coming across as “fun” or “accessible.”

To suggest that there’s something wrong with eating fast food at all is its own ethical conundrum — on the one hand, as Vox’s David Roberts notes, America’s largest fast-food corporations are predicated on “a vast network of animal suffering and ecological destruction and has in turn produced an epidemic of ill health.”

There is a difference, however, between criticizing the industry that makes fast food inescapable and proclaiming one’s own moral superiority over those who eat it (which is to say, most of us). No, there’s nothing wrong with college athletes, or the president, or anyone, really, eating fast food if they want to. But Trump’s comments that presume college athletes, who likely take great care of their bodies, would prefer a cheap buffet of burgers and fries over the kinds of food that one would expect to be served during a White House visit, have raised concern for some.

Burger King, meanwhile, has responded in its typical “relatable brand” voice on Twitter.

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A judge has stopped the Trump administration from asking about citizenship in the census


The emoluments clause, explained

William Barr on January 15, 2019.

A guide for William Barr, who claims not to know what it is.

Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) about ongoing litigation arguing that President Trump’s various business interests represent a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, attorney general nominee William Barr professed to have no idea what she’s talking about.

“I think there is a dispute as to what the emoluments clause relates to,” Barr told the Senate while maintaining that he’s never researched the subject. “I couldn’t even tell you what it says.”

The clause is in fact quite obscure. Until Trump’s ascension to the presidency, it had never been litigated, so there was absolutely no case law to illuminate what it says. That, in turn, is largely because before Trump, no one had attempted to serve as president while also running a large and opaque network of operating businesses.

But the emoluments clause — and litigation around it — has become a key flashpoint in the larger debate over Trump’s financial conflicts of interest and lack of disclosure about his finances.

What the emoluments clause says

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the US Constitution says:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of Amy kind whatever from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

This is a very outdated prose style, but the gist of it is that the authors of the Constitution were concerned that officials of the US government might be subverted by foreign powers who could offer them gifts, offices, titles, or “emoluments” — an old-timey word for compensation for labor or services.

This came up in a concrete way when three Republicans in Congress told President Barack Obama in 2009 that he’d need Congress’s permission to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which they viewed as an emolument. (The White House considered the question and decided it did not qualify.) No litigation followed from the Obama-era case, in part because nobody had a good-faith belief that Obama’s policymaking was being distorted by bribes from the government of Norway, so there continued to be no case law on what this meant up until Trump’s inauguration.

Trump, however, owns hotels and restaurants that provide a venue for possible ongoing secret payments to him by foreign governments — a situation that early in the Trump presidency a number of scholars told Vox was not allowed.

“It’s clearly prohibited,” said Steven Schooner, a George Washington University law professor.

“The president cannot get a gift from a foreign government,” Jordan Libowitz, of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Jeff Stein and Libby Nelson. “And it looks like he’s going to do exactly that.”

Since then, litigation has proceeded on two key questions — first, who (if anyone) has standing to sue over this, and second, what (if anything) would constitute a prohibited financial arrangement on the merits.

The lawsuit is stalled by the shutdown

The main emoluments case is being advanced by the governments of DC and Maryland, which initially had to establish that they have “standing” to sue the president. To do this, they had to establish a plausible claim of having been harmed by the alleged emoluments, which they argue has happened because foreign governments’ interest in courting Trump had caused them to divert business toward Trump’s DC hotel.

For example, as the Washington Post noted, the Trump hotel might be receiving business that otherwise would have gone to the Washington Convention Center or a hotel in Maryland, both of which are subsidized by their state governments.

DC and Maryland managed to win on this critical standing issue, which is important because, having established their standing to sue Trump, they are now in a position to demand access to some of his financial records. To demonstrate the existence of emoluments, they would like to find evidence that Trump’s hotel has been able to charge extraordinary rates above and beyond the ordinary market price of the hotel. To do that, they need more information on how Trump’s businesses work, something we currently know very little about.

Right now we know from a random leak that the manager of a Trump hotel in New York attributed a business turnaround to the Saudi government’s largesse — which, if true, would tell us something damning and important about US-Saudi relations in the Trump era. But to ascertain how true it is, we would need more systematic information.

The administration, meanwhile, argues that this is all basically a bad-faith fishing expedition. Democrats want a pretext to rummage through Trump’s financial records, so they’ve ginned up this weird clause from the Constitution as their excuse.

There was about to be a court battle over various efforts to force Trump to produce evidence in this case, but it’s currently on hold because government lawyers convinced courts that the shutdown makes it impossible for them to litigate the case properly.

Barr’s professed ignorance of the subject aside, however, it seems likely that as long as Trump is president, the Justice Department is going to take his side in emoluments litigation.

Trump’s personal corruption, however, has been a touchy subject for congressional Republicans, who have unanimously acted to prevent any financial disclosure on his part while generally declining to mount any kind of affirmative defense of Trump’s conduct. Under the circumstances, the safest path for Barr was probably to say nothing — which is what he did.


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Trump has reportedly discussed withdrawing from NATO. That would be great for Russia.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels.

According to the New York Times, Trump brought up pulling out of NATO several times in 2018.

President Donald Trump has reportedly on multiple occasions suggested the United States withdraw from NATO — a maneuver that would roil the global community and signal a major victory for Russia.

Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper at the New York Times reported on Tuesday that in 2018 Trump said several times that he wanted to remove the US from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance between the US, Canada, and multiple European countries signed in 1949 to contain Soviet expansionism after World War II.

Trump has made no secret of his disdain for NATO, which he once declared was “obsolete.” According to the Times, his repeated requests to withdraw from NATO have rattled administration officials, especially as concerns about his interactions with Russia and President Vladimir Putin grow.

The report details officials’ efforts to keep Trump contained during the NATO summit in Brussels last July, including pushing ambassadors to finish an agreement on several goals before the meeting to “shield it” from Trump. He discussed internal business in front of nonmembers of NATO, bucking protocol, and complained — as he often does publicly — that NATO members aren’t spending enough on defense.

He reportedly especially took issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her country’s spending of 1 percent of its GDP, per the Times:

By comparison, the United States’ military spending is about 4 percent of GDP, and Mr. Trump has railed against allies for not meeting the NATO spending goal of 2 percent of economic output. At the summit meeting, he surprised the leaders by demanding 4 percent — a move that would essentially put the goal out of reach for many alliance members. He also threatened that the United States would “go its own way” in 2019 if military spending from other NATO countries did not rise.

During the middle of a speech by Ms. Merkel, Mr. Trump again broke protocol by getting up and leaving, sending ripples of shock across the room, according to American and European officials who were there. But before he left, the president walked behind Ms. Merkel and interrupted her speech to call her a great leader. Startled and relieved that Mr. Trump had not continued his berating of the leaders, the people in the room clapped.

A meeting to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary planned for April in Washington, DC, has also been downgraded to a foreign ministers’ gathering, and it will no longer take place in Washington.

Trump’s antipathy toward NATO is a good thing for Russia, whether he ultimately withdraws from the agreement (which would require a one-year notification period and likely see pushback from Congress) or not. Moscow benefits from divides between the US and Europe, and Putin has been trying to undermine ties between the two for years.

With the exit of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in December, the situation has become worse, not better. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote that he believes the United States’ strength is “inextricably linked” to the strength of the country’s “unique and comprehensive system of alliances.” He specifically invoked NATO and pointed out that the 29 countries in the alliance at that time came to America’s defense after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As Vox’s Alex Ward wrote on the heels of the 2018 summit, Trump doesn’t seem to understand NATO or its worth:

At the heart of the NATO military alliance is a provision known as Article 5. That says that an attack on one NATO country is to be considered an attack on all the countries — and therefore that all the member countries are obligated to come to the defense of whoever is attacked.

This is why NATO allies — yes, including Montenegro — are fighting alongside the US in Afghanistan to this day. The US invoked Article 5 after 9/11, and NATO countries kept their promise and came to America’s aid.

The Times report confirms he still doesn’t get it.


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Lindsey Graham asks about debunked right-wing conspiracies in William Barr hearing

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) awaits the start of the confirmation hearing of attorney general nominee William Barr on January 15, 2019, in Washington, DC.

And President Trump’s attorney general nominee seems worried about some of them.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the new Judiciary Committee chair, opened up the confirmation hearing for President Trump’s new attorney general pick with a series of questions about right-wing conspiracy theories related to the Russia investigation.

That doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest of the hearing — and perhaps his whole tenure at the committee’s helm.

Graham asked William Barr, Trump’s nominee for the country’s top legal post, about whether he would investigate the people investigating Trump. Barr will take over supervision of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation if confirmed.

Graham asked Barr about Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two former federal investigators, who texted each other messages bashing Trump and saying that they would “stop” his 2016 election victory.

There is still no proof that they inappropriately used their positions at the FBI to work against Trump — in fact, reviews of the texts show no conspiracy between them against the president. But when Graham asked, “How do these statements sit with you?” Barr said he was “shocked” when he saw the texts in public reports.

Graham then turned to Bruce Ohr.

Ohr works in the criminal division of the Justice Department, but within some conservative circles, he is considered a dirty official who knew about former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and the salacious dossier Steele helped create. Ohr met and emailed multiple times with Steele, and they were in contact from 2002 to 2017. Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr, also worked at Fusion GPS, the company Steele worked for when writing the dossier.

But while the optics look bad, there’s no clear indication that Ohr somehow orchestrated the Steele report to embarrass and ruin Trump’s chances of a presidential victory. When Graham asked Barr if the Ohr’s connections to Fusion GPS and Steele bothered him, though, Barr responded, “Yes.”

Trump has tweeted his displeasure about Ohr on multiple occasions, mostly wondering aloud why Ohr still works for the government.

Graham then asked Barr what he thought about the special counsel. Barr, who said he’s known Mueller for three decades, said he didn’t believe Mueller would engage in a “witch hunt” against the president after Graham prompted him.

Put together, it’s clear that Graham used one of the most important moments of the hearing — the chair’s initial questions — to hear the attorney general’s views on right-wing talking points. What’s more, when it comes to Strzok, Page, and the Ohrs, it seems Barr shares some of Graham’s worries.

The moment illustrates that Graham’s tenure at the Justice panel’s helm may be a tumultuous one — and that Barr’s time at the Justice Department, if confirmed, may be just as turbulent.


Attorney general nominee Bill Barr’s “tough on crime” record, explained